The streets of urban Ethiopia shine in new colors. Sky blue, mustard yellow, bright red, hot pink. Plastic has made its indelible mark as an uninvited companion of city life. Despite its ephemeral quality, lasting seconds, maybe minutes, in our hands, it is a substance that escapes death, making a permanent mark on our cities and urban communities.
Plastic began as a rather benign invention, creating convenience for everyday modern life. Now, in the words of National Geographic, “we are drowning in it.” Plastic waste pollutes our planet in such quantities that it is now considered a crisis. Since its launch in the 1950s, the earth is now filled with 6.9 billion tonnes of plastic waste, 91% of which has never been recycled. UN Environment has tracked that every single year 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide. Around half of all plastic is used only once and then thrown away. But this waste does not merely disappear. It is estimated that plastic could take 450 years to degrade, if at all.
This trend is setting up human and planetary life for disaster, and Ethiopia’s case is no different. Traditional baskets such as zembils, and re-usable cloth bags such as abujedis, have been replaced by the throw-away culture of the plastic bag. This is to the detriment of our country’s people and ecosystems, polluting our land, food, water, soil and bodies. We are not only facing the damage of our own plastic waste, richer nations are eyeing poorer countries as plastic dumping grounds due to looser environmental regulations, and an investigative report puts Ethiopia as one of the newest hotspots. As tighter climate legislation puts a clamp on fossil fuel expansion, many companies are looking to plastics, created by petroleum byproducts, as their lifeline.
Our collaborative campaign, Ye Zembil Melse, calls for a full ban on single-use plastics in Ethiopia, and a mainstream revival of our traditional alternatives to plastics. Systems of repair and re-use are common practice across Ethiopia, yet urban life is becoming swallowed by a culture of dispose-ability. While cities globally aim to halt this linear system of immediate use and immediate waste, across urban Ethiopia circular systems are being abandoned for a foreign model of waste.
Yet our neighbors are following a different path. We are surrounded by leaders in the plastic-free movement, as East African countries step up their pledges to ban plastics. Kenya, Rwanda, Eritrea, Uganda, and Tanzania have all banned plastic bags, while Ethiopia has yet to follow suit. In 2007, Ethiopia’s Proclamation No. 513 on Solid Waste Management banned the manufacturing, use, and import of thin plastic bags in the country, but this was never implemented or enforced. In January 2020, the Environment, Forest and Climate Change Commission (EFCCC) proposed a complete ban on plastic bags in Ethiopia, but legislation has been delayed following the pandemic. In the meantime, the plastics industry is proliferating, and Ethiopia’s common exchange systems for glass bottles are shifting to the wasteful use of plastic bottles. These shifts are not negligible as key beverage companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé have been named the top plastic polluters in the world for the third year in a row.
Ye Zembil Melse aims to interrupt this cycle of waste. We use creative campaigns, alternative business models, and public engagement to advocate for policy change (such as the proposal of the EFCCC) and demand a plastic-free Ethiopia. Entrepreneurs, builders, creatives, and visionaries already make up massive elements of this sustainable future, from the original zembil producers to Noble Cup making re-usable menstrual cups, to Alternative Addis up-cycling so-called waste to create new products, to Hopeful River Project working to rehabilitate our waterways. Making Ethiopia plastic-free means promoting policies for ecological sustainability and urban resilience, reviving our circular economies, and abandoning cultures of single-use, dispose-ability, and waste to build healthier communities and cities.